LEWISTON, Maine — Representative Bruce Poliquin was hard to find the week after casting his vote in Washington to repeal the Affordable Care Act and slash Medicaid spending.
So when 30 or so unhappy Mainers descended on his district office in this old mill town, they brought a 5-foot-tall poster version of the Republican lawmaker and stood it in front of the building where they say the real Poliquin will not meet with them.
“Where is he?” read a poster propped beneath his likeness.
“Not here,” replied the next.
The actual Republican congressman could be assured this was merely a preview of coming attractions.
Poliquin is the only GOP member of the House of Representatives in all of left-leaning New England. That puts him squarely among 30 or so Republicans who, because they occupy seats in moderate districts, are being targeted aggressively by national Democrats eager to recapture control of the House in 2018.
They are pillorying Poliquin for his vote in favor of the unpopular House GOP bill called the American Health Care Act — which deeply cuts Medicaid and would cause millions of Americans to lose insurance coverage.
And President Trump’s firing last Tuesday of FBI Director James Comey, who was ramping up his investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion in Russian meddling in the US election, has further bolstered Democrats’ hopes of regaining the House. The dismissal, followed by contradictory statements from the administration about why Trump canned the nation’s top investigator, caused a credibility crisis for the White House that threatened to spread more broadly through the party.
Amid it all, Poliquin opted not to conduct any town meetings in his vast, rural district during last week’s House recess. Poliquin’s office said he was not available for an interview.
Poliquin played a pivotal role in passage of the House bill. He rushed back to Washington from a family medical emergency in Maine to help the measure pass by just two votes. So his failure to step forward and explain his vote in detail has angered more than a few people in his district, including specialists who say the bill would decimate health care programs for low-income Maine residents, especially in impoverished rural townships.
“I think it’s been wholly unsatisfactory,” said Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care, a system of community health centers in Poliquin’s district. “He ought to be out now after the fact explaining his vote in real terms to real people, and he’s not shown any inclination to do that.”
Republicans say their bill will lower premiums, increase access to health care, and make good on years of promises to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, including its mandates and taxes.
The bill has been criticized by health care advocates across the state, including the Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Medical Association, which represents doctors and whose executive vice president appeared at a press conference with Democrat Chellie Pingree, the representative for Maine’s First Congressional District, the day after the GOP bill passed.
Making matters worse for Poliquin, he isn’t getting any cover from the other Republican member of the Maine congressional delegation, Senator Susan Collins. Immediately after the House vote, Collins put out a statement detailing her numerous concerns with the bill, including its potential to hurt Maine’s large population of older rural residents. She followed that up with a May 7 appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” Her jabs at the House bill got front-page billing in the Bangor Daily News.
“That really hurts a state like Maine,” Collins said of the fact the House bill doesn’t adjust tax credits for income or geographic region, “where we have an older population living in largely more expensive, rural areas, as far as health care is concerned.”
She also flatly said the Senate would not consider the House bill. “The Senate is starting from scratch . . . and I’m convinced that we’re going to take the time to do it right.”
So far, Democrats have not fielded a strong challenger for the second-term lawmaker, who handily beat his last opponent by 10 percentage points. Nonetheless, the National Republican Congressional Committee — the campaign arm for the House GOP — recently added Poliquin to their list of most vulnerable incumbents, putting him in line for help from Washington.
The challenge for Democrats is whether fury over the health care bill and other elements of the Trump agenda spread beyond the core group of die-hard Democrats.
Poliquin’s district, an immense area of forest and small towns that reaches up from the state’s southern urban centers of Portland and Augusta to Canada, delivered one of Maine’s four electoral votes to Trump, voting for the New York billionaire by an 11-point margin over Hillary Clinton.
Conversations with voters over two days in Bangor and Lewiston found some who are thrilled with the action Republicans took on health care.
“I’m very much in favor of them cleaning up Obama’s mess,” said Rod Boutot Sr. of Waterville, when asked about the bill and Poliquin’s support. Trump is doing “a hell of a job” even if the media don’t give him the credit he deserves, the 73-year-old retired insurance executive said. “I think he’s living up to his campaign promises on everything.”
A national Quinnipiac poll out last week suggests Democrats nonetheless have a very real opening to flip the House. Fifty-four percent of voters said they want Democrats to control the House, compared to 38 percent who want the GOP to stay in charge.
Democrats’ congressional campaign arm responded to the House vote by launching ads on Facebook and Instagram hitting Poliquin and 29 other high-target Republican House members for supporting a “morally bankrupt” bill.
Save My Care, an advocacy group, has put television and digital ads up in Maine’s Second District telling voters that Poliquin “voted to raise your costs and cut coverage for millions . . . and charge five times more for people over 50,” part of a more than $500,000 campaign in 24 key districts.
A coalition of liberal groups delivered more than 1,500 “pink slips” — written by Mainers upset with his support of the House bill — to Poliquin’s Bangor office on last week, accompanied by 100 protesters.
“What in the world are you thinking??” wrote one woman who voted for both Poliquin and Trump, listing the serious preexisting conditions her daughter and husband suffer. (She shared her note with the Globe but did not want to be named.) “You disappoint me and at this point also disgust me.”
Health care advocates in the state have rejected the claim Poliquin made to Maine reporters that the bill affects coverage only for the 7 percent of Maine residents who get their coverage under the Affordable Care Act subsidized exchanges, which helps working-poor residents buy insurance. That ignores deep cuts the House plan would make to Medicaid.
While Maine is not among the states that accepted the Affordable Care Act’s large Medicaid expansion, (Governor Paul LePage vetoed five separate bills to do so passed by the state Legislature), health advocates say the bill’s $880 billion cuts and other changes to Medicaid would lead states to cut back on benefits or enrollment. That would mean loss of coverage to some of the 270,000 Mainers currently in the state’s program — many of them children and disabled seniors, who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid.
“Tens of thousands of people will lose coverage, if not hundreds of thousands in Maine,” said Nesin, the community health center vice president. “It’s going to be much broader and much more painful than that, not that those 7 percent don’t matter either.”
A Poliquin spokesman, asked why the lawmaker has not conducted a town hall, said Poliquin prefers “telephone town halls,’’ since his district is so large.
He last held one of those at the end of March.
The spokesman also pointed to a press conference Poliquin convened by phone with Maine reporters shortly before the vote, where he took questions from every single television station in the state of Maine. No print reporters were able to ask questions, according to local news reports.